From hairdresser to property enthusiast: a new style that turns heads

imageA hairdresser with a flair for renovation tells Zoe Dare Hall about doing up homes from rural England to Tuscany

As the founder of the Mahogany hairdressing chain, which has counted Samantha Cameron, Cheryl Cole and Greta Scaachi as clients, Richard Thompson has made some striking statements with his curling tongs.

But in the past 15 years, as his hair business has grown to include branches in London, Oxford, Bath and Manchester, Thompson has found another outlet for his creativity: property renovations. These have proven equally popular with celebrities, and include a penthouse in an old Highbury match factory, which Richard sold to the Alan Davies, the comedian, and a Georgian house in Hampstead that was bought by the singer David Gray.

Now Thompson, 59, is hoping his most recent project — and current home — Whistler’s Barn in Great Haseley, South Oxfordshire, will prove a hit. He has decided to hang up his scissors and move, with his 57-year-old wife Maria, a feng shui practitioner, to the medieval Tuscan hill town of Cortona, where they are working their magic on a 12th-century house in the ancient città.

“After 32 years of working in the hairdressing business 24/7, I fancy the idea of living somewhere else,” says Thompson, who has just sold Mahogany. “We fell in love with Cortona 25 years ago and always intended to have a home there.”

While the couple test out whether Tuscan life will suit them permanently, they are looking to rent out the three-bedroom Whistler’s Barn, which was originally converted from an agricultural building in the Seventies by the prolific English modernist architect Dame Jane Drew, for £3,950 a month.

“It was falling to bits when we bought it in 2004,” says Thompson. “The style was very advanced for a barn converted in the Seventies, but it had been done very rustically, with plain plastered, unpainted walls and utilitarian dark brown floor tiles.” The couple was not brave enough to tackle its renovation, “so when we moved in, we took it back to its raw state and started again”.

“Our style is to keep the original feel of how the property would have been but add touches of modernity,” he says. “We wanted to keep the look of a barn, so we kept to simple materials such as the grey-brown Italian limestone floor with a fossil-like swirl that resembles trodden earth, and 1cm gaps between the floorboards on the landing so it’s more like a barn floor.”

The Thompsons also wanted to avoid turning the space into a “conventional” house, so the en-suite bathrooms are enclosures within the bedrooms with walls that do not quite reach the ceiling.

“Each room is almost like a stage set within a huge open-plan space,” says Thompson, who has kept the original frosted-glass wall that Jane Drew installed but transformed just about everything else. In the living room is a dramatic floating staircase, a modern York stone fireplace and eclectic touches from period furniture to modern artworks.

At a tangent to the main house is an extension housing a garden room that Maria uses as her office, although it converts into a dining room with a long refectory table seating 16. This leads on to the “loggia”, a covered outdoor area where they store logs in winter and dine in summer.

Until making this their permanent home last year, the couple spent weekdays in a mews house in Notting Hill and retreated to Whistler’s Barn for weekends. “Oddly, while our London house became cottagey and maximalist, with all the walls covered in art, our rural barn became sleek and city-looking,” says Thompson.

The large walled garden, which the pair have landscaped with lawns, paths and topiary, is another highlight, reached by walking down two staircases from the barn. “The original farmhouse fell down about 100 years ago and only the barn was left. But by being set higher up, you almost feel you are sitting in a country manor looking down upon your estate,” says Thompson.

If he enjoys the grandeur of being elevated with incredible views below, then you can see why he was also attracted to the three-bedroom house in Cortona. He bought it for £250,000 “in its raw state” but has since spent untold multiples of that on its renovation.

It is one of the only detached casale — farmhouses — within the city’s ancient walls and is set high up with views across the Valdichiana valley and Lake Trasimeno. “We wanted to be in the centre of town to be immersed in Italian culture, part of the community, and to be able to walk to wine bars. The main street almost has a Primrose Hill vibe and a big international community,” says Thompson.

Many renovation experts stick to a formula they know works and sells well. But Richard has been eclectic in his selection. The 4,000 sq ft bleached white Highbury penthouse was the height of urban chic, with Thompson adding a 40ft swimming pool that inflated its price from the £600,000 he paid in 1997 to the £2 million he sold it for six years later. The Hampstead house, in historic Well Walk, was an exercise in restoring the property’s original Georgian splendour. And now Cortona is all about appreciating the listed house’s 900 years of history.

“They are all very different projects. But they are all about understanding what the property was meant to look like and keeping that sense of authenticity, while adding a modern touch,” he says.

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